LEOGANE, Haiti (TrustLaw) - On top of a hill with views of sugar cane fields and banana trees, 25 men meet every week to discuss why they shouldn’t hit their wives and partners and force them to have sex.
They all belong to a fathers’ group created by local residents in this poor rural community, a 90-minute drive west of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. Members have received training on women’s rights and family planning, as part of a project set up by the charity CARE, to help reduce the high levels of sexual and domestic violence in the Caribbean nation.
“I used to force my wife to have sex with me,” said Rorny Amile, who founded the fathers’ club two years ago.
“I used to believe that when I had the need, the desire to have sex, it was something my wife was just supposed to do. But I’ve learnt that having sex against my wife’s will is violence and that I need her consent first,” the father of three said candidly.
Like others, he says joining the fathers’ club has helped his 20-year marriage.
“My relationship with my wife has definitely got better. We now sit down together and talk things through,” Amile told TrustLaw.
Men say jealousy, a lack of money and jobs, along with the constant pressure to put food on the table, is a common source of conflict between couples, which can lead to violence in the home.
“There’re still men who beat their wives but that’s diminished since the fathers’ club started here. We speak to men door to door about fighting violence against women and breaking the silence,” said 29-year-old Erickson Elisma, the fathers’ club spokesperson.
“Children see their fathers beating their mothers and some carry on the cycle of violence when they grow up. We’re trying to show other fathers it’s not ok to do that,” he said.
In the past, initiatives aimed at reducing gender-based violence and raising awareness about family planning methods in Haiti, as in other parts of the world, have tended to exclude men. But that approach is changing and increasingly men are being encouraged to get involved.
“Combating violence against women is a collective effort that needs the participation of men,” said Lucanor Pierre, a local outreach worker working for CARE.
Women from this local community also have their own tight-knit club, the Women's Solidarity Group, with around 25 members, set up by CARE.
They learn about family planning, women’s rights and sexual and reproductive health through songs, workshops and role-plays.
Perhaps one of the most important pieces of advice women receive is the importance of getting medical care within 72 hours of a rape to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancy.
Sometimes the father and mother clubs join together to attend workshops led by community health workers where participants practice putting condoms on a wooden penis. Sitting in a circle, they sing songs that talk of the different methods of contraception and their right to decide when to have children.
Using contraception has helped reduce arguments with her husband, says Andre-Rose Romaus, a member of the women’s group.
“I don’t have to avoid having sex with my husband now for fear of getting pregnant. That used to cause tension between us,” she said.
The mother of two sets aside $2.50 every month to buy the contraceptive pill, an expense well worth the sacrifice, she says.
“If it wasn't for the training I've received I'd have more kids, which I don't want and which we can’t afford," Romaus said.
CHANGING SOCIAL ATTITUDES
Such initiatives are helping to change a culture where engrained sexist attitudes are widespread.
Women's rights have been marginalised for so long in Haiti that rape until 2005 was not even considered a crime against the victim. Rather it was a crime against morals or against the honour of the family. And even after rape was criminalised, justice has been slow with few rapists or sexual attackers prosecuted, local women’s rights groups say.
It’s not uncommon for women to be blamed for sexual assaults.
“We know of police officers who have told women they got raped because they were wearing a short skirt,” said Kethlene Francois, a member of the women’s group.
In recent years, laws aimed at improving women’s rights and participation in government have been passed in Haiti, including a new paternity law approved in July, which obliges fathers to take financial responsibility for their children.
The government led by President Michel Martelly is also working on finalising draft legislation which, if passed, could provide tougher sanctions against all forms of physical violence against women and a legal framework for victims to receive better care.
While rights groups say there is greater awareness about the widespread problem of sexual violence in Haiti, many say the government is not doing enough to tackle the problem and ensure existing laws promoting women’s rights are put into practice.
“There is a law that says women should make up 30 percent of government administrative posts but that’s not being implemented,” said Sophie Orthela, who heads a Haitian women’s leadership group with Heartland Alliance, a rights group.
“Let’s hope the new paternity law will ensure mothers receive the financial help they are entitled to from the child’s father but more government will is needed to implement laws like these,” she said.